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The first decade of our marriage felt as if we were living in a demolition zone. That's because my husband, John, and I were learning to tear down emotional barriers: those attitudes and behaviors that we had used to protect ourselves throughout our lives, that we continued to use to keep each other at a distance or even lock each other out. We had erected these walls without ever realizing it.
We had been married only a couple of years when we had the first argument that revealed one of my walls. More than a decade later, I can't even remember what we were arguing about, but I remember how I reacted. I was fuming mad. I felt angry, hurt and frustrated. And in the heat of the moment, I grabbed the car keys and walked out, abandoning the conversation. Rather than working toward resolution or excusing myself in a respectful way, I withdrew. In that instant, I put up an emotional barrier between my husband and me. I erected a wall that, if left unaddressed, would wreak havoc on our communication and intimacy.
While driving a couple of loops around the block, I realized how immature I was acting and headed home to face my husband and continue the conversation with humility and respect. I was slowly starting to recognize my walls, and little by little, choice by choice, actively starting to take them down.
We all have walls. Some are tall and strong, signaling to everyone around us to keep away. Walls might come in the form of anger, rage or shouting. But most are far less obvious, so subtle that we barely even notice them. Those barriers might be expressed through withdrawal, isolation or even an emotional shutdown.
Whether obvious or subtle, walls show up in the way we interact with the people closest to us, keeping us from experiencing the depth and richness of relationships the way God meant for us to experience them.
Many factors contribute to the type of walls we build in our marriages. One of the most influential factors is our family of origin. We learn to love based on how love was communicated and modeled to us. And much of our communication style comes from what we witnessed while growing up.
Every night before bed, I fill up a large glass of water and set it on my nightstand to drink if I wake up thirsty. This is something I watched my mom do and something she watched her father do. I assumed everyone brought a glass of water to bed until I got married and my husband gave me a strange look. From insignificant things like a glass of water to more significant things like our approach to conflict, we all have a tendency to repeat the patterns we observe and bring those patterns into our marriage.
As a professional counselor, I've observed many types of walls in marriage, and often the spouses who have built them aren't aware of them. I want to share five of the most common ones.
The wall of avoidance
When we're faced with stress, we tend to default to one of two reactions: fight or flight. We either face the situation head on (fight), or we run away (flight). We build the wall of avoidance when we'd rather hide or distract ourselves than acknowledge there's a problem and confront it.
Some people might think it's better to avoid conflict rather than deal with it. But that's actually the more damaging of the two reactions. I once worked with a couple who had been married five years and were on the brink of divorce without ever having had one major argument. Both of them were conflict avoiders, and rather than deal with the issues that came up in their marriage, they would ignore them. A lack of conflict to that degree usually means that at least one spouse is withdrawing and isolating rather than being open and honest about his or her needs and desires.
Instead of being scared of conflict, couples should see it as an invitation to deeper intimacy. Working through conflict brings two people together in a remarkable way. And learning to face conflict maturely and productively is part of the process of taking down the wall of avoidance.
The wall of invalidation
One of my biggest pet peeves is when I've spent all afternoon cleaning the house and my husband walks in without saying a single word about it (which doesn't happen often these days, thanks to our understanding of our walls). The wall of invalidation is all about our words or, in many cases, our lack of words.
Invalidation is choosing not to say something positive when a person has a perfect opportunity to do so. It can also be saying something negative instead of focusing on the positive. People who struggle with this wall usually have the false belief that lifting others up somehow diminishes themselves. In order to protect or defend themselves, they fail to encourage those around them.
Invalidation is especially damaging in marriage because it minimizes the good in the relationship and instead focuses on what's lacking. It's found in the human tendency to critique, criticize and complain. But God's Word is clear that believers are to encourage and build one another up (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Criticism and critique can be harmful in a marriage. My husband and I have had to work diligently and purposefully to show each other grace even while speaking the truth. But we've found new depths of intimacy and affection as we've learned to focus more on what we have in each other than what's lacking.
The wall of denial
Have you ever been in an argument and convinced yourself that the situation has absolutely nothing to do with you? If so, you were dealing with the wall of denial. In every conflict in marriage, you need to see your responsibility. That doesn't mean you're always at fault, but you do play a role — whether small or large — and can take action toward resolution.
This might be hard to accept, especially for those of you who've been on the receiving end of major hurt in your marriage relationship. But for you to be able to enter into full healing, you've got to see your role in a situation — even if that means setting proper boundaries, learning to say no, and getting better at expressing your desires and needs.
If a spouse can't take any responsibility for a conflict, he or she puts all the responsibility on the other spouse. That means he or she has lost all power to change the situation and has no hope of healing the marriage. To have some control, a person must take some responsibility.
If you allow yourself to build the wall of denial, it will prevent you from healing and having healthy relationships. I encourage you to see your role in your marriage conflicts and take responsibility for what you need to change. Then trust God with the rest.
The wall of passive-aggression
Have you ever had one of those moments when you're sitting in the car with your spouse and one of you is obviously bothered by something? It usually goes something like this:
"What's the matter?"
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm fine."
"You've been quiet for 15 minutes; you're obviously not fine."
"I said, 'I'm fine!' "
In our "fineness," we slam doors, sulk and give the cold shoulder to our spouse. The wall of passive-aggression comes into play when, instead of using positive, direct words to communicate, we default to indirect, unhealthy and negative behaviors. We pout. We stomp. We procrastinate. And instead of moving toward our spouse, we find ourselves drifting away.
Spouses often use this wall to protect themselves from the vulnerability of having to express what's bothering them, but in the end, it does more harm than good. This wall prevents healthy communication in marriage because it expects one spouse to know what the other is thinking without having to tell him or her. It puts the responsibility on a spouse to investigate, instead of on the other spouse to communicate.
If you let this wall find a home in your relationship, it will quietly destroy your marriage. To break down this wall, remember that healthy communication comes down to this basic rule: Say what you mean, mean what you say, and always speak with love and respect.
The wall of humor
My husband is really funny and loves to make me laugh, which is one of the things that drew me to him at the start of our relationship. But as we've grown in the depth of our intimacy with each other, we've realized that he's also really good at using his humor as a wall to keep me out. It can come in the form of cracking a joke when I've asked him to share his feelings about something serious, or it could be making light of a situation when we really need to talk through it. He's recognized his tendency to joke as a way to avoid dealing with hard things, and taking down the wall of humor has truly brought a breakthrough in our marriage.
Humor is a great trait to have, and sometimes using it to relieve the tension of a hard situation can be beneficial. But using humor and sarcasm as a replacement for dealing with important conversations will end up building a wall between you and your spouse, keeping you at a distance emotionally rather than giving you the opportunity to connect deeply.Debra Fileta is a licensed professional counselor, relationship expert and author of Choosing Marriage: Why it has to start with we > me.